The Prohibition Against Asking for Help

Mindsprings blog post

I was on a powerful retreat in the Devon countryside a few weeks back and I had a startling flash of memory from my childhood. I recalled a phrase that my mother used to say to me: “Ask Doesn’t Get”. And by that, I assume, she meant that children who ask for things , don’t get them. 

It’s one of those vague shimmering prohibitions that float through the dusky light of childhood and rarely get brought out into the daylight. But in the sharp clarity of the retreat, I suddenly felt the full impact of this crazy statement. 

Was my mother really telling her child not to ask for things? And that communicating a need was somehow wrong? 

Is there a couple of generations of British people who are afraid to ask for what they need?

I wondered for a while if I had mis-remembered it  until I happened to bring the phrase up in one of the morning sessions on MSPS and Patti,  a meditation stalwart, said that her mother had said something similar: “Good children don’t ask for things”. 

Then a few other meditator also chipped in with their version of this barmy prohibition against children communicating their needs. 

Is it a British thing? Some variant of the “stiff upper lip” / “children should been seen and not heard” trope? Is there a couple of generations of British people who are afraid to ask for what they need? A pandemic of people unable to ask for help. 

The reason this came up was because we were exploring the spiritual practice of Asking for Help. Calling on the “Buddhas, bodhisattvas and realised ones of the ten directions” to come and help us in our practice. This is a peculiarly tantric Tibetan practice of constantly asking (or supplicating) the forces of enlightenment to come to your aid. 

Ask Doesn’t Get

Tibetan practitioners (who have turned this “Asking for Help” into a beautiful art form) make no bones about the fact that attaining enlightenment is not something we can do on our own. Indeed, I get the feeling that many Tibetan lamas teaching in the West are baffled by our insistence on “doing it ourselves”. 

But our fierce self-sufficiency is perhaps the flipside of that phrase, “Ask Doesn’t Get”. 

If our parents are telling us not to communicate our needs by asking, then they are also telling us that our needs are not appropriate, others are not be bothered or relied upon and we should learn to figure things out ourselves. 

(My mother was probably taught some variant on the same theme from her parents, I’m not blaming her by the way. And I can also sympathise with mothers and fathers whose nerves are shattered by a never-ending stream of requests, demands and outright manipulations from their children. I don’t have children, so I am in no position to cast stones of blame.)

Nonetheless, I am interested in how this prohibition against asking for help plays out on the meditation cushion. 

You have to be shameless in your asking.

We mostly come to meditation because we feel something’s wrong with us (or perhaps something’s wrong with the world) and – if we’re British, apparently – we never ask for help. And we struggle and sweat trying to solve the problem ourselves because “Good Children Don’t Ask”. Then perhaps someone offers the possibility of asking. So we brace ourselves and get  over our British inhibitions  and we ask.  But then nothing comes back. “I knew it!” we say to ourselves.  “My mother was right…” 

But it’s not enough to simply ask once (under our breath, while no one is looking) and then crumple back into our unbelieving slump of solitude. You have to be shameless in your asking. 

The Tibetan teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche is funny on this subject. He says that you can be quite cheeky. The buddhas and bodhisattva’s only job is to come to your aid. They are sitting, twiddling their enlightened thumbs until the call comes. At which point they tumble over themselves, like celestial superheros, eager to get to your call-for-help first. 

And if they don’t come, if you don’t get a sudden perspective shift, if something doesn’t occur then you can chide them: “Come on guys. Get a move on. I really need your help”. 

Just because the answer doesn’t come back in a clearly addressed letter doesn’t mean it isn’t there. 

Naturally, they don’t have to be Buddhas if you don’t believe in Buddha. You can call on  on Krishna, Christ, Kali, Tara, St. Francis or St. Cecilia. You can ask for help from God, from Allah, from the Dharmakaya or from the most impeccable atheistic Universal life force. 

The important thing is to get back into the habit of asking. And then of being curious to see how the help is appearing. Just because the answer doesn’t come back in a clearly addressed letter, or in 20m-high neon letters,  doesn’t mean it isn’t there. 

For example, one of the things I often ask for these days is to be surprised. To be shown what I need in unexpected places. 

Often we’re longing and longing for something but simply looking in the wrong place for the results. We want a pot of gold and we’ve been praying for decades to get it and searching endlessly in the one metre square in front of us: “Where is it? Why does no one hear my prayer? Why am I always disappointed? Where is it?”  And then someone points out that it’s just behind us. We didn’t need someone to give us the pot of gold, we actually only needed them to gently turn our heads to see that it’s always been there, patiently waiting for us to notice it. 

The important spiritual practice is to ask and to ask shamelessly. 

In some ways, it doesn’t matter if the answer doesn’t come immeditately or obviously or at all. The important thing is to break the prohibition against asking. To ask and ask and ask. And slowly to relax into the faith that there is field of benevolence waiting at our shoulders. This is our ‘face before we were born’. It is the delicious recognition that many of us had as children that – no matter how blank and unhelpful our environment may have seemed – there is a ‘big space’ that we could magically rely on. 

In childhood, this is the realm of “imaginary friends” (who are, of course, not imaginary), of teddy bears, favorite dollies, secret gardens and tree-houses. In adulthood it can be the realm of buddhas, bodhisattvas, Gaian forces or universal consciousness. Different names same thing. 

The important spiritual practice is to ask and to ask shamelessly.  Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, another Tibetan teacher, says the ultimate request is to become like these wonderful beings who have already discovered enlightenment and have it in their bones: 

The most important prayer […] is when you are praying: “Make me you.” Basically, that’s what you are saying. “Make me you, make me you. Make me and you inseparable. Make you me, make me you.” You understand? That’s the prayer that you have to have been doing.

The joy and relief come in the connection that asking creates.

This is what we can begin and end our practice sessions with. Enlightenment is what we long for. To feel the bliss and emptiness of Buddha consciousness all day long. Not (just) because it’s fantastic and it transforms our ‘everyday’ world into a sparkling display of cosmic beauty. But also because it stops us from getting caught up in the boring tangle of our normal thoughts and allows us to truly love and help all the other beings in the Universe. 

But we can’t do it on our own. It’s like trying to build a boat while you’re sailing it. Better to get a shipwright in who knows how these things work and then sail away together with them. Which is why the art of asking is so essential.

Ask, ask and ask again. And the asking becomes the gift. We don’t actually have to keep a tally of whether our requests have been met. The joy and relief come in the connection that asking creates. We feel buoyant because our constant asking has made us more and more confident of the deep sustaining waters all around us. 

Forcing myself through the fire of Asking for Help allowed something precious to arise. 

On my recent retreat, I forced myself to ask for help from one of the retreat caretakers, something I never ever do usually. And the extreme discomfort I had in asking was matched by the exhilarating sense of connection I felt when I did ask and then received help. Somehow, forcing myself through the fire of Asking for Help allowed something precious to arise. 

Was asking prohibited where you grew up and has impacted your spiritual practice? Is it just a British thing or is it universal? 

Let me know below!

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  • This part of our meditation had me stumped.Having the memory of my mother’s voice, just before entering the house of the person that we were visiting, ” Don’t ask for anything, it’s rude, wait until you’re offered” made me reluctant to disobey my lovely late Mum.Since we discussed this, I’ve realised that this is an entirely different type of asking. Mum would have approved of my asking for help but not of my asking for a biscuit or more cake, other than at home. She obviously, wanted a well behaved child but this may have contributed to my shy, reticence.
    With that in mind, Alistair, at the next session, I’m going to be a rebel and ask, ask,ask. I think I might enjoy being a delinquent meditator.🙏

  • Trudy says:

    In public as a child: never ask, wait until offered and take less than you need or be shameful.

    At home as a child: if you didn’t ask, you didn’t get, but asking was no guarantee of getting so often there was no merit in asking.

    It’s never crossed my mind on the cushion to ask for help. How much would be an acceptable amount of help to ask for?  How best to formulate the petition? And even if I went all-out shameless … what on earth would I do if I got the help I asked for?! 😆

    This is such a thought-provoking subject and something to ponder over the next few days.

    • alistairappleton says:

      And – as always – a thought-provoking response, Trudy.
      I think from a Tibetan tantric point of view you cannot imagine the scope and magnitude of what you can ask for, because what you are specifically encouraged to ask for is complete Buddhahood in this lifetime. That is something quite beyond our normal conception of ‘what I deserve’ or ‘what I should expect’. And the Tibetans encourage us to push into that realm of the unimaginable support with images of clouds of innumerable Buddhas all holding an infinity of Buddhafields in their bodies. All of that is pointed at you and waiting to be asked.
      It’s no wonder we quail!

  • Linda Wallace says:

    Dear Alistair,
    I see a connection between being told “ask doesn’t get” and the trauma a child experiences when that child knows that it is not safe to ask for what they need from their caregiver (s).
    As adults, both must overcome the voices in their head from their childhood which tells them to keep their mouths shut. I agree that overcoming thisprogramming lifts us up greatly. I remember the first time I was able to ask for help without guilt. I wondered what my ecstatic feeling was caused by.
    No. This is not just a British thing. It’s universal!
    Linda Wallace

    • alistairappleton says:

      Ah that’s good to hear. It always feel a little ludicrous imagining that one nation in toto might experience the world differently from another.

      Where did you grow up?

  • HS says:

    It’s interesting that you wrote about the imaginary childhood friends becoming buddhas in adulthood. I always wonder where your originality came from.

    I think it’s your imagination. Why do we invent all these stories about Buddhas or pirates or spies, compose music or write poems in different languages?

    I see a kid in you, Alistair, and meditating on your retreats often feels like being a child in a world full of wonders. So I am here not for the spiritualism. I don’t care about attaining enlightenment or every technical detail of meditation or even helping every other being in the Universe. I just want to feel magic again, and when I was reading this blog, I remembered.

    I miss your stories because the world seems very serious, bland and boring right now, but I know the reason and I know it will soon be over and I hope to be free. x

    • alistairappleton says:

      I hope so too. And yes, we need to rediscover the magic of being. That is one of the things that inspires me and so I’m happy it if gets across to spark magic in you!

  • Mel says:

    Hi Alistair
    Yes it is definitely a ‘thing’ in many places. I grew up with, ‘if you ask the answer will be no’ and ‘I want, doesn’t get’. The option of answering a question with ‘no’ also didn’t really exist although I don’t remember being asked very often. Asking for help was seen a sign of weakness or failing and shrouded in shame. I don’t blame my parents, they are lovely people who probably (like us all to some extent) did their best with what they knew and grew up with themselves and, generationally, they weren’t pioneers in their school of thought around child rearing. Reading this blog post has made me pause and consider what effect this has stealthily ( or maybe not so stealthily) had on me both asking for people help and setting boundaries in my adult life. I do ask for help from Tara – something draws me to her for courage/comfort/guidance. As for asking shamelessly – I’ll give that a go. 🙂 There is so much unravelling and work to do around asking for help when it is so intrinsically linked with concepts around, ‘do I deserve help’?
    A moment of happiness last night when tucking our 5 year old grandson into bed. I asked, “Would you like a kiss goodnight”? “No thanks, but another story would be good please”. On a very simple level he was happy to say no and to ask for what he wanted – it may not have been help he needed but the seeds of asking are have been well sown for him.

    • alistairappleton says:

      Ah that’s lovely to hear Mel. I do hope that future generations move away from that dreadful curse of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and the imprisonment in the helpless self. I’m sure there are many people who were brought up to ask and to express themselves. I suppose, as a therapist, I don’t tend to encounter those people in my work very much. But ‘shameless asking’ sounds like a good life skill to master.

  • Jane Davis says:

    Is this ever NOT just a British thing! US society in general (implicitly sometimes and explicitly at others) stresses, ‘Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’–to which Martin Luther King basically said, ‘that’s impossible if you don’t have any boots’– ‘Do it yourself,’ ‘Vulnerability and kindness=weakness.’ I was also taught by my mother ‘Don’t pay attention to it’–‘it’ being any bothersome, humiliating, undermining situation–and to be ‘stoic.’ Her other, often repeated message was “Never depend on anyone..” (As if that’s possible…) Ask for help? That seemed to be equated with weakness or greed. Am I ever glad there were other messages that were in the air. But I was about 30 before I realized that my mother’s proclamation when I was little that crying made pain worse was not a universal truth. BTW, somehow, Richard Schwartz on the cultural legacy burdens of US society is intriguing: Materialism; Individualism; Patriarchy (including not merely sexism but homophobia); and Racism (I would alter this last cultural burden slightly to say Prejudice/Bigotry). That’s too complex to go into here. Anyway, this subject is worth a book–and I’m many already exist concerning US society. Also…I never wanted to have nor ever had kids. But….if I did, I hope I would not basically say to them, ‘Shut up and suffer. But look strong while you’re doing it.’ And….several years ago, the first time I was a counsellor at a Suicide Prevention hotline, a surprising recurring theme came up in talking to people who I needed to arrange to have taken to a hospital (with their consent) so they would not commit suicide: The idea that they were simply a burden to the people they loved–and who loved them–and had exhausted them and, therefore, could not ask them for help, even if that just meant asking to be listened to and understood. And they did not blame these people; the choice was ask for help from a stranger–eg, a counselor, therapist, hospital– or die. Wish there were a billboard in Times Square and a banner in the sky that says, “Vulnerability is Strength.” In sum, has this blog ever stirred up many ideas in me!

    • alistairappleton says:

      HI Jane, I’m glad to hear it’s not just an English thing. I wonder if it is perhaps a WEIRD thing (that is Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic). Perhaps the very notion of democracy has self-reliance baked into it? I don’t really believe that – but it’s a way of thinking about it. I remember spending a wonderful few days up on the German island of Hiddensee in the mid 90s with an East German friend whose family had been part of the Communist top brass. She wasn’t dewy eyed about the DDR but she did visibly shudder when I spoke about being ‘self-reliant’. “Urgh,” she said, “what a lonely space to occupy. Say what you will about our dream of socialism, we grew feeling part of something.”
      I’ve always chewed over that. The fundamental loneliness implicit in self-reliance. And the shame it throws over communal endeavours. Helping = cheating. What a weird world!

      • Jane Davis says:

        Alas, in America, self-reliance is one of the most fundamental myths, from Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography” and his very clearly articulated recipe for how to be a ‘good’ and ‘successful’ person–starting with childhood routines (F. Scott Fitzgerald duplicates this when he writes Jay Gatsby’s childhood notes on, basically, how to become a person); and of course, there’s Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and the “Protestant Work Ethic” (in the US, at least) of the self-made (successful) person, including that it’s up to each of us to ‘make it’ and if we don’t we are just lazy and spiritually worthless (this is part of American ‘individualism.’) What’s intriguing is that I think that in the US, most people do not know some of the most foundational myths that we/they are influenced and/or living by and think that society/life just organically became the way it is. I don’t know if I said this before but one time I thought about this was when an Iranian friend asked me to tell him how does one “become American”–not in terms of citizenship but in terms of the mind. Then I recalled all those days of grammar school reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every day and having to learn to sing the first 2 paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence (very tunelessly) The most dangerous ideas can be the ones we don’t know are running us….

  • janetmiller says:

    Oh, I think this goes far beyond British, and way back in human history. Asking for help means dealing with opinions about something we want or need. That’s really loaded, so much to unpack: “Know your place” – systems of control by the powerful in so many realms. Hence, it’s better not to get your hopes up, not get your heart broken – especially when a stiff upper lip was the best way to just cope or survive. Then using desire against people, even as the Buddhist teachings on detachment get misunderstood. Reclaiming desire was a big facet of the 60s & 70s revolution, until it stopped looking like a good plan… Or got co-opted & totally confused by the ‘all about me’ contingent.
    Difficult forces at play. Power corrupts absolutely.

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